Good music is good music. Whether it’s a recovering alcoholic songwriter from Alabama, a quartet of banjo players singing about centuries of struggle for black women in America, or a young, queer-centric string band from Brooklyn, if you can play a little and have a story to tell, you’ll find an audience. That Brooklyn band, Karen and the Sorrows, can play more than just a little, and their latest release, Guaranteed Broken Heart, combines heartache and stunning musicianship to give us one of the best albums of the year.
As you’d guess from both the band’s name and the album title, singer-songwriter Karen Pittelman isn’t here to cheer you up, and the lonely Texas highway feel of the title track sets the tone. Pittelman sings of “some random people” (not her) being in love, cueing up a song of desolation and longing: “Don’t touch my face/Don’t say my name/Don’t smile that smile.” While the lead track is driven forward by Mike Robinson’s pedal steel, “There You Are” revolves around Cole Quest Rotante’s Dobro, an instrument which can either be outrageously joyful or hopelessly doleful. It’s certainly more of the latter in this macabre (“Let this dirt become my home), slightly masochistic (“If you brought me pain/Then pain was what I needed) tune.
One of the absolute triumphs of the album is “Why Won’t You Come Back to Me.” The song starts with Rima Fand’s mournful fiddle and Pittelman listing the tasks she’s undertaken to win back a lost love – “Cut my hair and cleaned my mess…” The music builds, the tempo increases, and the narrator becomes more desperate: “Give me your kiss and let the end days come.” The swirling chaos of the arrangement reflects the turbulence felt by the spurned love (and perhaps gives a bit of insight as to why the departed lover, well, departed). Many of the songs musically evolve like this, such as the haunting “Your New Life Now” – instrument building upon instrument, a slow burn carried by Pittelman’s light yet captivating voice. Even to a “trained” ear, the album requires several listens just to nail down the nuances of both the music and the lyrics. Which is everything that good music SHOULD do.
The band identifies as “queer country trailblazers,” and there is some gender bending in the lyrics – sometimes sung to men, sometimes to women, other times left to interpretation. But Guaranteed Broken Heart isn’t an outward social statement. Rather, it’s a lovelorn masterpiece that will beguile both newer Americana listeners and fans of more traditional country. The last song on the record, “You’re My Country Music,” is an old-school ballad dosed with a bit of (gulp) romantic optimism. The singer, who long ago tired of worn-out musical tropes, seems to have found someone who brings understanding to those feelings: “Every tired old cliche that I’d dismissed/All it took was one damn kiss/Just took you to make it true.”
Guaranteed Broken Heart was produced by Pittelman, and she wrote all of the songs. The album was recorded and mixed by Charles Burst, additional engineering by Matt Marinelli, and mastered by Paul Gold. Additional musicians include Barbara Endes (electric guitar), Charles Burst (drums and percussion), Gerard Kouwenhoven (backing vocals), Ross Martin(acoustic guitar), Viva DeConcini (electric guitar), Larry Cook (bass and backing vocals), Saskia Lane (bass), Grant Ziolkowski (mandolin), J.B. Flatt (keys), Douglas Jay Goldstein (banjo), George Guthrie (banjo), Ellie Goodman (fiddle) and Tara Lynne Mallon (backing vocals).
You can order Guaranteed Broken Heart here: https://smarturl.it/hr4w9c
Go here to check out live dates for Karen and the Sorrows: https://www.karenandthesorrows.com/upcoming_shows/